Wyland – Marine Life Artist and Conservationist
Wyland is an artist who thinks big – not only in size and scale, but in vision and impact. Described by USA Today as a “Marine Michelangelo,” Wyland is best known for his life-size paintings of whales on the sides of buildings throughout the world. The Whaling Walls, as they are known, are viewed by more than one billion people a year.
A multi-faceted artist, Wyland is also a sculptor, photographer, explorer, television host, and social entrepreneur. His status as one of the most influential artists of the 21st century has led to strategic partnerships with the U.S. Olympic Team, the United Nations, the National League of Cities, the U.S. Forest Service, Toyota, Walt Disney Studios and more.
“The Wyland Foundation, a charitable organization the artist founded in 1993, has worked directly with more than one million children since its inception. The Foundation is dedicated to promoting, protecting, and preserving the world’s oceans, waterways and marine life, and is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.”
Is it true that you didn’t see the ocean in person until you were 14 years old?
Yes, that’s totally correct. I saw the ocean for the first time when I was 14 and we made a cross-country trip from Michigan, where I grew up, to Southern California. I saw the Pacific Ocean, and, on that same day, I saw a gray whale and calf near the shore that breached right in front of me. It was a life-changing moment and inspired me to be an ocean artist focused on great whales and marine life.
What was it about that sighting of the whales that moved you to devote your life to the subject?
When you see a whale, it changes you forever. You never forget it. It changes your DNA on how you see the world and your place in it.
Just the size and the grandeur of whales?
All of it – the size and the awe; as a 14-year-old artist, it really inspired me. I still reflect on that day and that moment in my paintings and sculptures, the giant murals that I paint, and the music that I write. That’s how profound that moment was for me.
It’s remarkable the way that chance viewing on a family road trip changed your path and inspired your life’s work.
When you think about it, there are no ‘chances.’ Everything in the universe happens, but you can affect everything by what you project out there. If you put good into the universe, that’s what comes back at you. If you focus on the negative, that usually comes back, too. I’ve always tried to be positive and bring a positive message of art and conservation.
What happened when you returned to Michigan after that trip?
I went home to Michigan and started studying whales. I had already been watching The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. He was my real hero and I wanted to be like Jacques Cousteau, but I was a pure artist. Later, I became a diver and an International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame inductee with Jacques Cousteau. I was a pure artist, so I combined the science and the art together. I am a hybrid artist. You’re usually an artist or a scientist, but I am kind of both.
Did you always plan to use your art to promote conservation and the health of the oceans?
What I do is instinctive, and I was an artist in the right place at the right time. It was Earth Day last week, but April is Earth Month for me with our big program, the Wyland National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation. When the first Earth Day was announced in 1970, I was a young artist that took all that in, along with Cousteau and Greenpeace, and all those things had a major impact on me as an artist.
You mentioned painting life-size murals and I understand that your concept was to let people see whales in their real size, just as you had seen them in your first ocean sighting.
That’s right. It was absolutely frustrating to paint great whales on small, traditional canvases. I needed larger canvases, so the idea evolved naturally; if I’m going to paint the great whales, I need to paint giant murals, which are life-size portraits. That was kind of new at the time, to paint whales in their own environment and life-size, and I think that really resonated with a generation.
When you painted the first mural, what kind of reaction did you get? Were people kind of baffled or were they awestruck?
The reaction was tremendous. People were pulling over on the side of Pacific Coast Highway in Laguna Beach to take it all in. Schools were coming in and bringing busloads of kids to stand next to the life-size whale. Not everyone is going to get to see a whale, but to see one painted on the side of a building was very impactful, and that’s what I was hoping for.
Did you ever imagine after that first mural that you would end up painting 100 of them all over the world?
I kind of spouted off to a writer for the Los Angeles Times who asked, “Hey, Wyland, how many of these ocean murals are you going to paint?” and I said 100. I should have said 10 [laughs]. It took me 27 years to do them.
It’s an incredible accomplishment. You mentioned the busloads of school kids coming to see the mural and you’ve worked very hard throughout your career to involve kids in your art and your outreach. Why is that important to you?
It’s always been important to me because, when I was a kid in the first grade, I had an art teacher who would draw with me and she said, “You could be a great artist,” and I believed her. So, I remember that and when I get a chance to get in front of kids, I do it every time.
I’ve painted with over a million kids over the last 30 years or so. Basically, my statement is, if you want to protect the environment today, talk to us; if you want to protect the environment for the future, you’ve got to get our youth on board. That was the whole idea for the Wyland Foundation and our Youth Ambassadors. If you can plant conservation through art in the hearts and minds of children, it remains with them throughout their life. A healthy environment for our kids is critical.
There are a lot of concerns today about the health of our oceans, plastic pollution, and other environmental issues. Looking back on when you started your career to where we are now, and maybe looking into the future a little bit, are you optimistic that we can clean up the problems and have healthy oceans?
I am very optimistic due to spending so much time with young people and hearing their passion for protecting the environment today. They’re innovative and creative, and it’s not enough for them to be aware; they want to take action, and that’s very encouraging to me. I’m seeing a lot of great things happening. It never should have gotten this far, but I see a generation that is committed to a healthy planet.
What I am also trying to do is encourage art education in America, because it is starting to disappear from our schools and I’m seeing that more and more. We need to put more art into our schools. Art drives creativity and we need creative thinkers to solve some of these big problems that we face today with pollution of our oceans, lakes, rivers, streams and ponds.
You know what’s funny? It’s probably going to be some kid who comes up with a creative, world-changing idea for the planet. It starts with a good foundation and inspiration, which is what my art is about; it’s about inspiring people to see nature with fresh eyes.
I live in Phoenix and water is a big issue here in the desert, so water conservation and access to clean water in abundance are very important topics.
When you don’t have water, you really appreciate how important it is to all life – not only to whales, of course, but to us. There are places like Cape Town where they’re shutting off the water; there is no water. Could you imagine coming home and you have no water?
The truth of the matter is, we have plenty of water, but we’re not taking care of it. We’re polluting it, the plastic issues – all of it. We can all do better. The Wyland National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation focuses on that, but I realized right away that, to protect our water here, we need to protect it around the world.
Last year, I announced – with the U.N. – an official partnership to bring the Wyland World Water Pledge to all 7 billion people to be water-wise, to conserve, protect and respect our water. I just decided to think as big as I could. I’ve always tried to think big, but I believe right now, water issues will be a legacy for all of us, now and in the future.
You’ve accomplished so many things and already have an amazing legacy, but I’m curious if you still have some big dreams to fulfill. What is on the horizon?
I’m in the middle of sculpting 100 monumental sculptures that will be in 100 great cities in the world. That’s my newest public art project and it’s going to be larger-than-life freshwater and saltwater animals from the U.N.’s list of endangered and threatened species. I actually did the first one in Beijing the day after I finished my final Whaling Wall. I’m going to do 100 sculptures and 10 of them will be underwater, so you’ll have to snorkel or dive to see them.
I’m trying to be an artist that’s making a difference. I also want to be the artist that did the most and gave the most for as many causes as I could.